Can The Moscow Elections Save Russia from Revolution?

July 12, 2019

On 8 September 2019, millions of people in Moscow across 45 electoral districts will head to the polls to elect new deputies to the Moscow City Duma. The City Duma is a powerful political organ. It votes on the Moscow budget, allocates government tenders and is generally regarded as more powerful that the capital’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin. It may come as no surprise, then, that United Russia — the Kremlin’s loyal and truly corrupt party — holds a convenient majority in the parliament, controlling 28 of the 45 seats.

Four seats are held by the Communist Party; the nationalist party Rodina (Motherland) holds a single seat; and ten ‘independent’ duma deputies are members of an informal group called Moya Moskva (My Moscow).  These deputies are referred to as ‘systemic opposition’. They give an appearance of political independence, but in reality vote in unison with United Russia.

The Kremlin has created a number of bureaucratic and electoral barriers aimed at preventing independent candidates from getting their names on the ballot in the city elections. These restrictions focus around collecting signatures from members of the public. Aspiring electoral hopefuls must present roughly 5,500 hand-written signatures to the electoral commission to register as a candidate. For comparison, US congress candidates (taking part in federal elections) must collect 2,000 signatures.

To make matters worse, electoral officials —many of whom are effectively hand-picked by pro-Kremlin deputies — enjoy invalidating signatures for infuriating and unjustified reasons, often claiming that letters are incorrectly written or illegible.

We spoke with one independent candidate Alexander Solovyev, who has undertaken this mammoth task, hoping to get his name on the ballot in the third electoral district in Moscow’s north-west.

Alexander is 31 and sits on the Federal Council of Open Russia, a Russian nonprofit organisation that promotes rule of law and civil society in Russia.

Alexander with his team of keen collectors.

Khodorkovsky.com J. Richardson (KhJ): What is motivating you to stand as a candidate in the Moscow City Duma elections?

Alexander Solovyev (AS): Injustice. Injustice happening every single day in Russia. This pitch black injustice, which is almost hopeless. But I want to do something. We need to do something within the framework of the law. We have to make every attempt to change the situation in Russia, because there is no justice in Russia. If [authorities] don’t let us change [the current situation], then we will have to change the situation outside the framework of the law through a revolution, or something like that. There is no other party in Russia right now that is making a bigger contribution to a revolution in Russia than the current regime, because they are not giving people any opportunities to fight for justice as they are controlling every single branch of power.

KhJ: Who do you hold responsible for these injustices?

AS: Mostly it’s the executive branch of power. Within the Moscow government there are so many powerful clans that it seems that even the mayor is less powerful than them. For instance, the clan that controls construction in Moscow. They are extremely corrupt and it seems they don’t even care about the mayor. They can build whatever they want in any part of the city, even if the residents are strongly against the construction. They don’t give a damn about this. They are also responsible, for instance, for building roads, even though they shouldn’t. The department for transport is responsible for building roads. Sometimes even [the mayor’s] department of transport says ‘No you cannot build a highway here in the centre of Moscow because it will worsen the situation with traffic’. But the clan doesn’t care about that. They’ll build it anyway because they can make a lot of money from the construction.

KhJ: Could you give me three concrete things you want to achieve, if elected?

AS: The first thing I want to achieve is gaining control, real control over the Moscow budget because nobody has this control right now, except the mayor. The budget is being spent in a very corrupt way. Nobody knows why we have to spend so much money on the mayor’s PR, for instance. 19 billion rubles ($301 million) every year. The city of Vladimir, which is not that far from Moscow, it’s a regional capital and has an annual budget of 6 billion rubles ($95 million). So the city Vladimir lives for three years on that which we in Moscow spend in a year on the mayor’s PR.  Nowadays, we know that we have a lot of money in this budget, but it is not being spent on people, on education, hospitals and all the other things. It’s being spent on useless construction just because somebody has a construction business and has close ties with the Moscow City Duma.

The next step is ecological reform. Moscow produces a lot of garbage and Putin’s friends want to build quite a few, very dangerous plants around Moscow. Old ones that are very inefficient and just burn the rubbish. This will produce a lot of dioxides, which are extremely dangerous for people’s health. So we really need ecological reform. We have a solution. There is a lot of new technology that will allow us to treat garbage without damaging the environment. And we have every possibility to attract those corporations who will construct [the new plants] from their own budget, not even from [the city] budget.

And the third step that is badly needed is local government reform, because the municipal level has no authority. So the municipal deputies are literally nobodies. They have almost the same amount of authority as ordinary citizens. They decide nothing. We need to reform that. [Weakening the power of municipal deputies] was done by the previous mayor, Luzhkov, because he didn’t want any problems with the local deputies because he wanted to build everything he needed probably because of corruption.

Alexander and the team out on the hunt for signatures.

KhJ: What criteria do you have to meet to become a candidate in the Moscow City Elections?

AS: Well the biggest barrier is the number of signatures [you have to collect] and the number of rules about how you collect them — the bureaucratic barriers. The whole fact of collecting the signatures is now being used as a barrier and everybody understands that. [Authorities] don’t even try to hide this fact; they say in an open way that the candidates who have no representation in the Federal Duma must not be trusted to the same level that candidates whose parties have representatives in the Duma are. This is complete stupidity. This barrier is almost unsurmountable.

KhJ: As I understand you have to collect around 5,500 to 6,000 signatures. How many signatures have you and your team collected?

AS: We have collected just over 7000 signatures. We had to do this because there were a lot of mistakes in the signatures. You need to add at least 10% extra [to the minimum required], in an ideal situation 20% extra, to have an opportunity to replace the disputed signatures.

Alexander with just some of his 7000 signatures.

KhJ: How long did it take you? How many days?

AS: So you can’t collect signatures forever. You can only collect them for four weeks. This is another barrier that was created intentionally, to make it even more difficult to collect such a big number of signatures.

KhJ: That’s 250 a day. That’s quite a lot.

AS: The thing is that I didn’t have the opportunity to start collecting on the very first day, because you can’t do that without opening a special electoral bank account. So first you open the necessary bank account. Then you buy the forms to collect the signatures with. You can only buy those forms with this bank account.

So I had about 20 days.

KhJ: How many people did you have in your team?

AS: Of course my team was getting bigger with every single day. In total I had more than 110 collectors. They all had to go to the public notary [to get official authorisation]. The most we had was about 65 to 70 people a day collecting signatures. And the most we collected was about 587 signatures [in one day]. This is the rough figure. We had to check all of them every single day to get rid off the invalid signatures. There are thousands of reasons that could make a signature invalid.

Alexander submitting 5,500 signatures to the electoral commission.

KhJ: It seems quite obvious, but I’ll ask the question anyway. Who benefits from this system?

Nobody apart from [pro-Kremlin] United Russia and the current regime. So this was created just to protect the current regime from new people running in the local, regional and federal parliaments. So previously, [authorities] were trying to control the process of the elections, but they understood that it would be much easier to prevent [genuine opposition] from standing in elections. So they created this tool and they definitely benefit from it.

KhJ: Who is the current deputy for the third electoral district in Moscow?

The current deputy of my district is a man whose name is Valery Skrobinov. He’s been representing this region for more than 20 years, but he’s not running this year.

KhJ: Is he a member of United Russia or is he an independent deputy?

AS: He is part of United Russia and that is why he is not running again. United Russia is not leading their candidates [into the election] on behalf of the party. They are disguising them as independent candidates. The rating of United Russia is extremely low right now and it’s very difficult to get someone elected on behalf of United Russia. There are 45 electoral districts in Moscow and not a single United Russia candidate. In my district a new lady is trying to run as a fake independent candidate and her name is Sabina Tsvetkova.

KhJ: So right now there are 28 deputies from United Russia in the parliament, so just over half the seats. And if they all then become independent candidates, how will that affect the politics inside the Duma?

AS: They won’t remain independent. They will unite under the fraction which will be called the United Russia fraction. That will be official and it is allowed [by the law] as well. The chair of the Moscow City Duma has already said that, ‘Yes, we don’t have any candidates on behalf of United Russia, but the fraction of United Russia will be in the next term of the city council’.

KhJ: Do you think this tactic of fielding fake candidates will work?

AS: Yes, it definitely does because most of the elderly people, for instance, they believe someone when they say, ‘I’m independent, I’m not from United Russia’.

KhJ: Do you think that independent candidates have a chance of breaking the United Russia majority in the Duma?

AS: The real independent candidates have their chances, but the chances are quite low. We should be honest and realistic with ourselves.

KhJ: What was the most memorable moment of the campaign

AS: I would stand with the collectors every single day at different [collection] points and collect signatures with them. A few guys, very positive guys, joined our team. First of all, we asked them to leave their signatures to support my campaign and they said, ‘Wow guys, you’re doing a great job, you’re so good, you’re so open, you’re so positive. Can we join your team and collect signatures with you guys?’. And they became some of the most efficient collectors because they are locals and know the problems in their district. That was really good. These people were really awesome.

KhJ: How many cups of tea were you drinking a day?

AS: I can’t remember. I can only remember how many kilos I lost: seven kilos. What’s funny is that we collected almost 7000 signatures and I lost seven kilos. So one kilo for each thousand signatures.

KhJ: Once you get registered, is that when you will start your campaign?

AS: Once I am registered, I will start a massive campaign in my region, in order to make it known to every single person in my district that United Russia is once again trying to steal their votes, to steal the truth and trying again to lie, to manipulate the elections. I want to tell the truth to the citizens in my district and I just want to try and change something.

There is also another Alexander Solovyev [standing in the election]. He is a candidate for For A Just Russia and so doesn’t have to collect signatures. This is a very old and dirty trick from the 90s. That only shows that I am doing the right thing.

You can raise awareness of the difficulties that determined and passionate citizens like Alexander face when trying to exercise their democratic rights in Russia by sharing his story on social media.

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